Syriac Medicine comprises the efforts of the Syriac-speaking communities of the West and the East to avoid disease and cure ailments. The focus in the present article will be on Syriac medical literature of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages; at the end of the entry, the role of Syriac-speaking Christians in the development of hospitals will come under scrutiny.
The Syriac medical tradition, as Syriac literature in general, owes a great debt to the Greek heritage, and notably to the Galenism of Late Antique Alexandria (see Temkin). Two periods of Graeco-Syriac translation mark this transfer of knowledge. The first occurred during the early 6th, and the second during the 9th cent. The first period is mainly associated with Sergios of Reshʿayna, a W.-Syr. priest who studied medicine and philosophy in Alexandria. He translated many philosophical texts, but also the so-called Sixteen Books of Galen, a selection of works used to teach medicine in Alexandria, as well as other works by Galen; Theodoros, the bp. of Karkh Juddan (fl. ca. 525–45), commissioned a number of them. The E.-Syr. Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (d. ca. 873) and his school dominate the second period. It has to be emphasised that Ḥunayn’s school produced many more and often much better translations than the 6th-cent. translators (see Gutas). Despite their popularity, few of these Syriac versions survived; the Arabic versions by Ḥunayn’s school quickly eclipsed them. We are, however, able to study the Graeco-Syriac translation technique, not least since Bar Bahlul’s ‘Lexicon’ incorporates the vocabulary lists used by Ḥunayn and his entourage (see Bhayro).
Syriac authors did not limit themselves to translating Greek sources, but also wrote many independent treatises on various aspects of medicine. But here again, most of the literature is lost today. There are, however, at least two works which ought to be mentioned here. The most substantial extant medical text in Syriac is the so-called ‘Syrian Book of Medicine’ by an unknown author and of unknown date (estimates range from the 6th to the 13th cent.). It consists of three distinct parts: Part One is mainly based on Galen’s ‘On the Affected Parts’ and ‘On the Composition of Drugs according to Places in the Body’; Part Two deals with astro-medicine, that is the impact of the stars on human health; and Part Three contains many popular and magic recipes and treatments. Yoḥannan bar Sarapion (Ibn Sarābiyūn) compiled the second extant independent work: a medical encyclopedia (kunnāš) in seven books which is lost in the Syriac original, but does survive in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew translations (Pormann). It provides an outline of Galenic medicine, the first four books dealing with diseases ‘from tip to toe’; the fifth with bites by insects and poisonous animals, skin condition, and gynaecological disorders; the sixth with fevers; and the seventh with ‘compound drugs’, i.e., it contains many thousands of recipes. Yoḥannan bar Sarapion continues the Greek encyclopaedic tradition as represented by Paul of Aegina (fl. ca. 640s), but also incorporates the pharmacopoeia of the East (notably Indian) into the system of humoral pathology inherited from the Greeks.
We know of many famous Syriac-speaking physicians. Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq was not only a translator, but also the personal physician of a number of caliphs. Likewise, his teacher Yūḥannā b. Māsawayh (d. 857) also excelled in the medical art. Both mostly wrote in Arabic, and acquired great fame in the area of ophthalmology. The most prominent Syriac medical family are without any doubt the Bukhtishūʿ. They hailed from the famous city of Gondeshapur (Beth Lapaṭ), and were in the employ of various caliphs from the 7th to the 10th cent.
This leads us to the final topic: hospitals set up by Syriac Christians. Some scholars have argued that by the 4th cent. sophisticated hospitals existed in the Christian world (e.g., in Cappadocia or Gondeshapur); but these claims have rightly been dismissed (see Dols; Horden). It is, however, beyond doubt that Christian charitable ideas had an impact on the development of Islamic Hospitals (Pormann). From a letter to the Ch. of E. Patr. Timotheos I (d. 823) we know that a substantial Syriac hospital was in existence by the late 8th cent.; it was called xenodocheion (Greek for ‘place for strangers’) and bimāristān (Persian for ‘place of the sick’). Moreover, a number of important Abbasid officials who set up Islamic hospitals — such as ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā, the ‘good vizier’ (d. 946) — had Syriac family backgrounds or ties to the Syriac medical elite.
- S. Bhayro, ‘Syriac medical terminology: Sergius and Galen’s Pharmacopia’, AS 3 (2005), 147–65.
- R. Degen, ‘Ein Corpus Medicorum Syriacorum’, Medizinhistorisches Journal 7 (1972), 114–22
- M. D. Dols, ‘The origins of the Islamic hospital: Myth and reality’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 61 (1987), 367–390.
- M. D. Dols, ‘Syriac into Arabic: the transmission of Greek medicine’, ARAM 1.1 (1989), 45–52.
- Gutas, Greek thought, Arabic culture (1998).
- P. Horden, ‘The earliest hospitals in Byzantium, Western Europe, and Islam’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35 (2005), 361–89.
- P. E. Pormann, ‘Yūḥannā ibn Sarābiyūn: Further Studies into the transmission of his works’, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004), 233–62.
- P. E. Pormann ‘Islamic Hospitals in the Time of al-Muqtadir’, in Abbasid Studies: Occasional Papers of the School of ʿAbbasid Studies, Leuven, 27 June – 1 July 2004, ed. J. Nawas et al. (2010, forthcoming).
- O. Temkin, Galenism: Rise and decline of a medical philosophy (1973).
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
Peter E. Pormann , “Medicine,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Medicine.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Pormann, Peter E. “Medicine.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Medicine.
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